Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Ten Years: Heaven's Gate & Hale-Bopp

Heaven's Gate: The Sequel by Joshuah Bearman

The Heaven's Gate ritual mass suicide occurred ten years ago, this month. LA Weekly has fascinating article by Mr. Bearman, featuring an interview with "Rio", one of the few survivors. At times, poor Rio's life reads as a cliché Freudian example of someone prone to cult victimization. Yet you're compelled to feel sorry for the guy, the interviewer pointing out that he seems a pleasant and calm fellow. On the other hand, Rio still professes belief in the cult, claiming to receive messages from the dead founders.

I highly recommend the article for anyone interested in science and alternative religions. The author does a good job recapping the history of Heaven's Gate. One peculiar fact I had forgotten: one of the suiciders was Thomas Nichols, brother of Nichelle Nichols (Lieutenant Uhura, of Star Trek fame). Reading it brought back some vivid memories for me:

At that time, I was just getting into amateur astronomy, so I was really excited about the discovery of the comet Hale-Bopp. The comet had real potential to be spectacular.

Then the hucksters and wackos started chiming in. A newbie amateur astronomer took some pictures of the comet, claiming they revealed a UFO trailing behind it. Art Bell's radio show, a hit among paranoid insomniacs back when the X-Files commanded some relevancy, featured the poor fellow as a guest. Soon after that, the "Farsight Institute", an organization that promoted 'remote viewing', issued a statement their psychics were in contact with the extraterrestrial piloting the spaceship!

I recall a flood of new subscribers joining astronomy and telescope msg boards, bulletin boards, and mailing lists, all asking about UFOs. Many of us tried to explain that thousands of telescopes were trained on Hale-Bopp, giving it the distinction of being one of the most observed objects of all time. If a spaceship existed, how come nobody else was seeing it? Some astute astrophotographers chimed in, pointing out that what the hapless amateur actual photographed appeared to be just internal reflections arising from peculiarities in the optical desing of the telescope. Of course, we were accused of all taking part in 'the conspiracy'! Heh! More photographs were promised by the amateur, but they were never forthcoming.

At that time, in San Diego CA, a secretive messianic group of UFO devotees, calling themselves Heaven's Gate, had interpreted the arrival of the comet as a sign that doomsday was at hand. They believed the UFO claims of the conspiracy crowd; they had faith the ship was going to whisk them away to technological salvation. They purchased a fine 8" SCT (oddly, this was at about the same time I purchased my telescope--almost exactly the same model) to view the craft. They saw what we all did: NO SPACESHIP! The telescope was returned to the store and exchanged for a pair of binoculars.

Up to this point, I found sparing with the net-kooks something of a guilty pleasure. The truth is, not everyone on the other side of the issue was a UFO zealot. A sizable minority asked good questions; some were certainly open minded. On the other hand, there was a verbose hard-core bunch who expressed unyielding faith that we were about to be invaded. Then suddenly, the conspiracy stuff took a deadly turn. Goofing around with the UFO nuts didn't seem so amusing any more.

I posted the following comment to a number of UFO and astronomy boards:


I'm comet Hale-Bopp. How's it going, Earthlings?

It's been a long time -- over 4,000 years -- since I last visited your neighborhood. Unfortunately, my last visit went unrecorded. At that time, you did not yet have the knack for transcribing your own history. But you people did some crazy things then, when I reached perihelion. A thousand people had their hearts cut out and were tossed into a bottomless sinkhole, kings were deposed, godheads ascended, and blood drenched wars were waged, all because I graced your skies. You even blamed me for a couple of famines and plagues. What was really puzzling is that you seemed completely unconcerned about what I really was. I chalked this up to mere ignorance.

Now that you have all this science and technology you are so proud of, I was hoping things would be different this time. So much has been written about me, I feel I must speak up!

It's amazing to see how little you have changed. The wars, the famines, and the diseases are all still here. It's as if I never left. And even in your so called "information age", more craziness has proliferated and been written about me, than ever before. I never would have guessed that you still do human sacrifice -- but you now call it "ritual suicide". What gave you the idea I'm hiding a space ship from you? You even made me some sort of symbol for *your* coming millennium. Your self importance could really break me up.

Oh, I almost forgot. I'm not supposed to tell you this, but the real "aliens" consider your planet the laughing stock of the galactic quadrant. See you next time, in about 2,500 years. Just wait till my friends in the Oort cloud hear about this. Don't change, whatever you do! LOL


The Comet presently known as Hale-Bopp

Of course, some people got the joke--others were inflamed at my crass insensitivity. Heh, so I posted the following:

People of Earth... Attention:

I am the commander of the space ship orbiting the comet known as "Hale-Bopp".

Thank you! Those 39 people you sent are a good start, but we need some big time help up here. I don't wish to sound ungrateful, but could a few hundred more of you commit suicide? ASAP? This is a big space ship and we've really got our hands full. Conspiracy advocates with computer skills will get the best positions.

One more thing: don't listen to anything that brainless comet says. So what are you going to do? Pay attention to a dirty snowball? Ha! This stupid comet cannot tell its ion tail from its nucleus.

Best wishes,
Commandress Lacerta

In college, I had a wonderful astronomy professor. He was a consummate skeptic, constantly debunking astrology, psychic phenomena, religion, and such. Someone asked in class asked "Do you believe in God"? He grew thoughtful, then responded "I see God every time I look through the telescope." But the author points out that Rio sees the Universe differently. He challenges him on his beliefs:

"...When he finds out I don't believe that the Grays — the bigheaded, almond-eyed aliens — are abducting humans for genetic sampling to save their species, he looks surprised, as if such knowledge is axiomatic, and says, "Well, you'll get there eventually."

Uh, no thanx! I prefer my Gods & Goddesses, Elementals, the Faery-folk, the 'Hero with a Thousand Faces', even Dragons and the Unicorns. Studying them and welcoming them, I feel I am learning something about our history, our place in nature and society, and this amazing existence. The central thing is, that for me at least--these glorious beings don't have to be real to be important. Such acknowledgment helps one keep a foot planted on terra firma. Maybe that's the thing missing from sterile religions such as "Heavens Gate". For the unfortunate followers of that path, it was a tragic omission.

The Universe is mysterious and awe inspiring. The Hale-Bopp comet was a wonderful gift, glorious and magnificent. It was easily viewable with the best telescopes ever evolved: our own eyes--provided free of charge courtesy our Earthbound evolution. Yet, why did so many people feel they had to imagine it all had to do with spaceships? Why is it that some find our Universe so dull, boring, and meaningless, that they compel it to be interesting? Can they only find comfort in this world if they people it with super advanced technological beings, in some anthropomorphic daydream of angelic salvation? Maybe I'm missing something, but where is the spirituality in that? Where are the myths and metaphors, the mysteries and beauty?

Pagan's have a saying: "The Old Ways are Best".

(image: astronomy.com)


Anonymous said...

Hey that letter was really good. im touched. Seriously! or should i say Siriusly oh wait wroung massive cult suicide

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